11 Feb 2016: Analysis

El Niño and Climate Change:
Wild Weather May Get Wilder

This year’s El Niño phenomenon is spawning extreme weather around the planet. Now scientists are working to understand if global warming will lead to more powerful El Niños that will make droughts, floods, snowstorms, and hurricanes more intense.

by fred pearce

Wild weather is gripping the planet. An El Niño has been wreaking havoc around the world, causing major flooding in South America, droughts in Indonesia and southern Africa, an unprecedented hurricane season in the North Pacific last fall, and much more.

Climatologists are still calculating whether this is the biggest El Niño on record. What they do agree on is that there have now been three “super-El Niños” in the space of just over three decades — in 1982-83, 1997-98, and now 2015-16. This unusual recurrence gives weight to a forecast made by Wenju Cai of Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, two years ago that headline-grabbing “super El Niños” were in the process of upgrading from once every 20 years to once every ten years.

AFP/Getty Images
This town in Entre Rios Province, Argentina, was flooded after El Niño-related rains in December.
So what is going on? Is global warming beginning to cause more frequent and intense El Niños? And what effect might more powerful El Niño cycles have on the planet’s steadily warming climate?

El Niños are short-term aberrations of ocean currents and weather systems that start in the waters of the tropical Pacific and send shock waves around the world. They usually occur after several years of calm conditions during which prevailing tropical winds blowing across the world’s largest ocean pile warm water up in the west of the Pacific, around Indonesia.

This cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually, there is a breakout. The warm waters turn and wash back east toward the Americas. They take the weather with them, bringing downpours to some normally arid sections of the western coasts of both North and South America, while leaving normally wet Indonesia dry and fire-prone.

Meanwhile knock-on effects from this climatic and oceanic convulsion spread around the world, impacting every continent with floods or droughts, heat waves or cold snaps.

These breakouts, of greater or lesser extent, are a regular feature of the planet. They typically happen every three to six years and last for up to a year. They are often followed by an exaggerated version of normal conditions, known as La Niña, which typically brings heavy rains over
Most models predict the chances of routine El Niños turning into extreme events is growing.
Indonesia, floods in southern Africa, tropical cyclones that blast the Chinese coast, hurricanes in the Atlantic, and dry conditions on the Pacific coast of the Americas.

Cai’s study, using 20 climate models from different research institutions that simulate Pacific Ocean conditions with and without climate change, found that this rhythm of normal El Niño cycles is unlikely to change as the world warms. But most of th e models predict that the chances of routine El Niños turning into extreme events — super El Niños — is growing strongly, with the likelihood of extremes expected to double.

Cai explains why: Big El Niños happen when the warm waters from the western Pacific push most strongly eastward. And climate change is making that easier, because temperatures in the normally cool waters along the western coasts of North and South America are rising faster than those in other parts of the oceans. So the extra heat from the west can spread further, which loads the dice in favor of major El Niño events.

Not everyone agrees with this conclusion. Skeptics such as Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, point out that climate models may be good at simulating ocean temperatures, but forecasting what might happen to the El Niño effect is far more difficult. When climate modelers feed ocean temperature data from past El Niños into supercomputers, they are none too good at predicting the occurrence of those prior El Niños.

And even models that predict more big El Niños disagree about where exactly we are headed. Some project that global warming could ultimately drag the world into near permanent El-Niño conditions. But last year an analysis of 12 million years of temperature changes in the Pacific found no evidence of past permanent El Niños, even during times much warmer than today. “Global warming does not drive the Pacific Ocean into a permanent El Niño-like condition,” concluded author Mark Pagani, a Yale University paleoclimatologist.

But Cai, in addition to predicting that the intensity of El Niños could increase, also forecast in a paper last year that La Niñas could grow in intensity, too, with a “near-doubling in the frequency of future extreme La Niña events.”

While climate change appears to make big El Niños more frequent, it is also true that El Niños return the favor by giving a short-term stimulus to atmospheric global warming. This is because the spread of warm waters
El Niño is delivering disruptions that could intensify as the world continues to warm.
across the tropical Pacific results in a release of heat energy from the oceans into the atmosphere.

The last big El Niño, in 1998, set global temperature records that lasted for several years. In fact its impact was so marked that in the aftermath of that spike in temperatures, many concluded that global warming had somehow “stalled” because temperatures fell briefly from those heights.

That was wide of the mark, however. The underlying temperature trend continued to carry on up. There have been a series of record global average temperatures since 2005. And when the next big El Niño erupted, it ensured that 2015 became easily the warmest year yet. Many expect there will be enough extra warmth still coursing around the world to deliver a new record in 2016.

But while climatologists are watching global averages, for most people it is the day-to-day weather that matters. And El Niño is certainly delivering some startling events — disruptions that could intensify as the world continues to warm.

The drought it has created in Indonesia has sustained the worst forest and peatland fires there since 1998. Equally dramatic have been floods in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and southern Brazil that displaced some 150,000 people in December. The current El Niño is also responsible for the big rains and snowfall in California that have at least temporarily eased the drought there.

Ziniyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images
El Niño-related drought has devastated parts of southern Africa, including this area in southwest Zimbabwe.
Spreading its influence across the Indian Ocean, El Niño is also responsible for an escalating drought in southern Africa that could result in famine later in the year, scientists say. And it is being blamed for everything from the accelerated melting of tropical glaciers in the Andes in recent months to the bleaching of overheated coral reefs from Florida to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

It was also one element behind the unusually warm temperatures in the tropical Atlantic that triggered Hurricane Alex, the first hurricane to form in the North Atlantic in January since 1938, along with East Coast blizzards and record December rainfall and high temperatures on the other side of the Atlantic in the U.K.

Less noticed, there was also an unprecedented hurricane season in the North Pacific in the late fall, stretching into January, when Tropical Storm Pali became the earliest new-year storm ever recorded. Add in a record heat wave in India, bush fires in Australia, and the coldest weather in decades in parts of China, and the disruption around the world in the past three months, when El Niño was at its most intense, has been immense.

Some scientists are even attributing recent disease outbreaks, in part, to the current El Niño. But these claims look less justified. For instance, several new reports have linked El Niño to the growing outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease zika in South America. The suggestion is that it has created the high
The current El Niño has been, by some measures, a record — bigger than 1982 or 1998.
temperatures and standing water that mosquitoes flourish in.

El Niño has indeed made much of the continent a little warmer than normal. But the Zika outbreak is in northeastern Brazil, some 1,800 miles north of the recently flooded region of the continent. In classic El Niño fashion, northeastern Brazil has been unusually dry in recent months. So, despite claims that the proliferation of water containers set up by people fearing drought might attract the insects, the suggestion appears, on the face of it, to be based on bad geography.

Long-term weather-watchers had been on tenterhooks for an El Niño for a while. There had been several false alarms, says Steve Zebiak of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, one of the first researchers to attempt El Niño forecasts. “In early 2014, we had a definite warming that looked like an onset, but which fizzled out in mid-year,” he says. When identical things happened early in 2015, many predicted another dud. Wrong again. Instead, the warming built and spread.

“I haven’t seen a convincing explanation of why 2015 was different from 2014,” says Zebiak. But his hunch is that the difference may have been the unwinding of another long-term cycle in atmospheric-oceanic interactions in the Pacific, known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which operates on longer timescales than El Niño and is centered in middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

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Whatever the trigger, the current El Niño has been, by some measures at least, a record — bigger than 1982 or 1998. Certainly neither of its rivals exceeded the 3.1 degrees Celsius of warming recorded in the central Pacific in December. But the heat is starting to dissipate now. El Niño may be gone by early summer, its final goodbye heralding a delay in the return of offshore winds that bring the monsoon season to India, meteorologists predict.

What’s next? Nothing is certain. But some smart money is on a big La Niña being underway by late 2016, as the warm waters rush back west. Cai’s studies forecast that in future the greatest risk of extreme La Niñas “occurs in the year following an extreme El Niño, thus projecting more frequent dramatic swings of opposite extremes from one year to the next.”

If it happens, we can expect drought turning to floods in Africa, a resurgence of tropical cyclones, the U.S. Southwest locked back into its long-term drought, and probably much else. Unless you enjoy wild weather, the prognosis from here on out does not look good.

POSTED ON 11 Feb 2016 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Sustainability Australia 

COMMENTS


Prior to MLO the atmospheric CO2 concentrations, both paleo ice cores and inconsistent contemporary grab samples, were massive wags. Instrumental data at some of NOAA’s tall towers passed through 400 ppm years before MLO reached that level. IPCC AR5 TS.6.2 cites uncertainty in CO2 concentrations over land. Preliminary data from OCO-2 suggests that CO2 is not as well mixed as assumed. Per IPCC AR5 WG1 chapter 6 mankind’s share of the atmosphere’s natural CO2 is basically unknown, could be anywhere from 4\% to 96\%. (IPCC AR5 Ch 6, Figure 6.1, Table 6.1)
The major global C reservoirs (not CO2 per se, C is a precursor proxy for CO2), i.e. oceans, atmosphere, vegetation & soil, contain over 45,000 Pg (Gt) of C. Over 90\% of this C reserve is in the oceans. Between these reservoirs ebb and flow hundreds of Pg C per year, the great fluxes. For instance, vegetation absorbs C for photosynthesis producing plants and O2. When the plants die and decay they release C. A divinely maintained balance of perfection for thousands of years, now unbalanced by mankind’s evil use of fossil fuels.
So just how much net C does mankind’s evil fossil fuel consumption add to this perfectly balanced 45,000 Gt cauldron of churning, boiling, fluxing C? 4 Gt C. That’s correct, 4. Not 4,000, not 400, 4! How are we supposed to take this seriously? (Anyway 4 is totally assumed/fabricated to make the numbers work.)
IPCC AR5 attributes 2 W/m^2 of unbalancing RF due to the increased CO2 concentration between 1750 and 2011 (Fig TS.7, SPM Fig 5.). In the overall global heat balance 2 W (watt is power, not energy) is lost in the magnitudes and uncertainties (Graphic Trenberth et. al. 2011) of: ToA, 340 +/- 10, fluctuating albedos of clouds, snow and ice, reflection, absorption and release of heat from evaporation and condensation of the ocean and water vapor cycle. (IPCC AR5 Ch 8, FAQ 8.1)
IPCC AR5 acknowledges the LTT pause/hiatus/lull/stasis in Text Box 9.2 and laments the failure of the GCMs to model it. If IPCC can’t explain the pause, they can’t explain the cause. IPCC GCMs don’t work because IPCC exaggerates climate sensitivity (TS 6.2), of CO2/GHGs RF in the power flux balance and dismisses the role of water vapor because man does not cause nor control it.
The sea ice and sheet ice is expanding not shrinking, polar bear population is the highest in decades, the weather (30 years = climate) is less extreme not more, the sea level rise is not accelerating, the GCM’s are repeat failures, the CAGW hypothesis is coming unraveled, COP21 turned into yet another empty and embarrassing fiasco, IPCC AR6 will mimic SNL’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, “Well, neeeveeer mind!!”
One can only hope that 2016 will be the year honest science prevails. In the meantime the hyperbolic CAGW hotterist’s hysteria will continue to fleece the gullible, (i.e. the world’s second oldest profession).

Posted by Nick Schroeder on 12 Feb 2016


Hello, my names Paul Huntington and i'm a life
long local of Central California and passionate
weather person. Along with holding a Bachelor of
Science in Environmental Science and Policy from
California State University Monterey Bay I have
been studying the North Pacific weather patterns
extremely closely since i was very young which
isn't that long really, i'm only 38 years old,
however i am starting to see a pattern emerge that
is linked to the larger 30 year North Pacific Decadal
Oscillation, Davidson Current, Madden Joulian
Oscillation, Indian Ocean Dipole, and the Humboldt
Current. I am not seeing us enter into a La Nina
next year but a "Modoki" el nino (warm equatorial
El Nino ocean sea surface water is more in Central
Pacific than East Pacific) with an active inter-
tropical convergence zone and an active MJO
mitigating the built up ocean heat (increased global
CO2's impacts). This pattern is going to reinforce
the warm pool from propagating west this summer
(lots of cyclones, typhoons, kelvin waves) and is
going to be our third year in a row with a positive
ENSO indices. The reason this is going to happen
has a large part to do with global warming and i
firmly believe the El nino pattern will become much
more consistently established with not many strong
negative ENSO La Nina events anymore. The West
Pacific since 1998 does not cool to the
temperatures we use to see and this along with the
Indian Ocean warming quicker than any other
ocean is creating a warm pool of water that
counteracts the intensity of el ninos impacts along
the West Coast of America. In simplistic terms a
more positive/positive neutral ENSO pattern should
be what we start to see occurring more often along
with El Ninos impacts being less certain in
California by this active MJO pattern and the
warming Indian Ocean Dipole establishing a more
neutral or negative neutral regime thus effecting
the extent the el nino sub tropical jet stream can
move south and the indifference of cold and warm
ocean water that drives the el nino jet stream. We
are learning that an active MJO during strong El
Ninos has a tremendous effect on the sub tropical
"conveyorbelt" el nino jet stream and is one big
reason this one has not lived up to its expectations
in California/Southern California, at least so far. I
am also presently (February 2016) seeing the
Humboldt current off Chile getting "locked" up
similar to what happened to our Davidson Current
along California during a short stint of negative
NPDO indices and in my mind is what subsequently
spurred the intense drought that started in 2011
(difference here is locked up Humboldt current
means wetter rains to California and locked up
Davidson current means drier winters in California).
I am thinking we have recently experienced a
"gateway" climate shift similar to what happened in
1977 (year i was born) or 1997 and we are not
going back to how things were anymore.
Nevertheless, once this gateway shift counteracted
the locked up Davidson current and very unactive
MJO/ITCZ (March 2015Cyclone Pam and MJO's
intense rebound) it has now accentuated the MJO's
active state and seems the feedback loop is in full
motion. What is going to slow it down now is the
question? In addition the upwelling off Chile is not
active and a tongue of very warm anamolous ocean
water is establishing which will further support an
El Nino next year. Modoki El Ninos could become a
pattern we start to see more and is a word
everyone will know very soon! Modoki El Ninos feed
off the MJO and placement of the Arctic high to
bring flooding rains to California and although not
supportive of three month deluges it is a much
more sustainable pattern water wise to support the
rivers, snow pack and reservoirs in California. I do
not believe we are drying out but entering a wetter
regime that is going to be very supportive of our
water needs. We shall all see soon what happens
and we are gonna learn so much in next ten years,
very exciting and bit scary whats gonna happen!
cheers, paul
Posted by Paul Huntington on 15 Feb 2016


Hi I'm Thobani Memela from south Africa a professional
astrophysicist.I have recently been shocked as to what
extent the elnino events can be.In high school we've been
taught about this type of an environmental issue.However
,our teacher used to emphasis the fact that this particular
environmental issue occurs without geographers having to
be enlightened about how,when and why it is taking place.

Posted by thobani memela on 08 Aug 2016


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fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K. He is a contributing writer for Yale Environment 360 and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers. Recently for e360, he has written about how microgrids are bringing power to rural Kenya and has covered the United Nations climate talks in Paris.
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